Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Whatever you think of Trump, we can all agree with him on the corrupting influence of money in politics

It didn't get much air in the last election cycle, but someone came up with a short list of things that Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders actually agree upon. From this article at Hot Air by Taylor Millard published nearly a year ago, we learn that Trump and Sanders find a fair amount of agreement on trade, health care, infrastructure spending and Social Security. And both are highly critical of wealthy donors and their immense influence in politics. Millard's article is a critique of another article at Vox which gets into the details of just how much Trump and Sanders sound alike or find agreement with each other.

I believe that, love him or hate him, we must find the points where we agree with Donald Trump and work with him there. Yes, it's easy to take him down a notch on one point or another any day of the week. The protests are good because they're getting people involved in politics. But as I've mentioned before on this blog, if you're protesting an issue, you're late to the party. What we are experiencing in America is a result of decades of political constipation and now, the body politic can no longer deny the pain they're in.

There is one other aspect to the choices we make in politic and civil discourse that we must take notice of: target fixation. If we focus on the negative, we're going to get the negative. Yes, it's helpful to give Trump the feedback for we need to let him know if he's not acting upon the will of the people. But if we are too focused on what we don't want, we tend to get what we don't want.

Many of us didn't want Trump and many liberals, including Hillary Clinton were very focused on not getting Trumped. That kind of focus became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The brain speaks affirmatively and focuses on the target. It can't hear the word "not" or "no" and tends to focus on the subject of the declaration. So instead of hearing, "Noooooo, not Trump!", it hears, "Trump!". This sort of behavior is addressed in the Law of Attraction.

I also have some personal experience with this as a parent. I have a 4 year old daughter who will sometimes say "no" to everything. When I see her denying everything, I explain to her that if she says no to everything, she is not telling me what she wants. So I try to get her focused on what she wants rather than what she doesn't want. If what she wants is within my sphere of influence (and within reason), I find a way to deliver, if not, then I explain how that's just not going to happen. I've seen her spend 10-15 minutes denying everything only to learn that she just wants water.

We can lose ourselves in the act of denying everything Trump, too.

While I find some agreement with Trump on trade, healthcare, Social Security and infrastructure spending, the Big Kahuna, the one that is most important to me is campaign finance reform. Both Trump and Sanders agree that we must reform campaign finance to reign in the influence of the wealthy donor class so that the rest of us can be heard.

Campaign finance reform tops my list for many reasons, and I've laid out the arguments here in, Bernie is the only candidate willing to say it: there shall be no other reforms before campaign finance reform, and that is one among many in my blog. If you're strapped for time, the argument is simple:

  1. The wealthy own the primary elections process through a pernicious political disease called "Tweedism" (video featuring Harvard law professor and one-time presidential candidate, Larry Lessig). If the wealthy get to decide who wins the primaries, our choices in November are limited to their choices.
  2. If the only people who ever get elected to higher public office at the state and federal level owe their success to the wealthiest among us, the rest of us will never be heard. See, "Testing Theories of American Politics:Elites, Interest Groups, and AverageCitizens", a study that proves without a doubt that the average American has next to zero influence in politics.
So if you're not happy with the current state of political affairs, the majority of the blame can be squarely placed on a small minority of Americans, roughly 0.02% of us, who have hijacked our political system with the corrupting influence of money. Given the current system in place, there really can be no other reforms before this one, even if you do find agreement with Trump on some other issue.

Trump is acutely aware of the issue of campaign finance reform, amply demonstrated here in the nugget from the article at Vox mentioned above:
Some of Trump’s appeal, like that earlier of independent candidate Ross Perot, rests on his being able to finance his own campaign so he is not dependent on campaign contributions from the wealthy and from business lobbyists.
"I don’t want lobbyists. I don’t want any special interests. I don’t want any strings attached," Trump told Face the Nation last August. And he wants to curb the power of PACs and Super PACs. As a billionaire, he is making the case against the business- and lobby-dominated political system.
Trump has been a donor and knows firsthand what kind of pressure he can apply to members of Congress or anyone running for office as a member of the donor class. He understands the powerful and corrupting influence of money in politics. He knows that he can be rendered moot if that tiny 0.02% minority has sway over Congress. Congress holds the purse strings. Congress gets to fill out the checks. Trump can only sign them as president.

Bernie Sanders doesn't take large campaign donations from wealthy donors. He has won 14 elections with small donations. He raised more than $200 million, with an average donation of $27, during his campaign for president last year. He understands the influence of big money in politics and has studiously avoided that influence.

Since Trump is the most powerful conservative in America, and Bernie Sanders is widely acknowledged as the most powerful liberal in Congress, and both agree upon the need for campaign reform, then we must seize on this issue and this issue alone. If there are any in Congress who disagree, let them defend their reasons for denying this one reform. Let them embarrass themselves as men and women who would rather spend their time dialing for dollars than to be doing the work of the people.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Someone's knocking at the door, somebody's ringing the bell

I don't think I've ever seen a more unintended, or inspired, call to activism. Donald Trump signs an executive order to ban Muslims from America and that's all we see in the news. Well, it doesn't ban Muslims from all over the world, just seven countries that appear to be sources of terrorism, as the Trump Administration contends. Trump says that it's not even the ban he promised during his campaign.

Thousands of protesters swarmed JFK. Lawyers have been seen sitting on the ground at the airport, typing furiously on their laptops, pro bono to boot, to write habeus corpus pleas to allow the people stuck in the airports to leave the airports. Courts weighed in to halt the detention of travelers. A chorus of GOP members of Congress has emerged, chastising Trump for the ban.

Even so, the Trump Administration reminds us that the Obama Administration selected the countries named by the ban. So no, it's just a coincidence that those countries happen to have no business ties to Trump's empire. The Trump Administration reminds us that Obama instituted a travel ban in 2011 and there was hardly any uprising, rather, it was just business as usual. They think we're all upset because it's just Trump doing it, not Obama. Maybe they're right.

Trump seems to be having a calculated effect on the people: the people are expressing their outrage. Protests are all over the country. People are taking action. People are saying words, really great words, probably the best words that Trump has ever heard, some with four syllables! People are getting involved in politics.

Here is where I get all scientific again. Anyone here remember a guy named Isaac Newton? He discovered an interesting law of nature, "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction". That was a summation of Newton's Third Law. And Trump is now witness to it. No matter what Trump does, there will be an equal and opposite reaction to it. Only this time, we can see it. With Obama, no on noticed. Well, not very many people noticed. Ok, our mainstream media was content with Obama, so they didn't have much to say. With Trump the clarions call.

As far as the press is concerned, Obama was free to send drones to foreign lands to kill other people. Yet, some people contend he was one of the greatest presidents we ever had. Never mind that in retirement, Obama is setting up a foundation that looks a lot like Hillary's. Never mind that he promoted the same neoliberal economics that gave rise to the housing bubble and took all the credit for "saving the economy". Never you mind that he helped Hillary give us the Trump.

If Trump sent drones to foreign lands to kill other people, it's all over the news. But today, it's the travel ban on Muslims that has everyone up in arms. I say this is good. Did some of the staff in the State Department quit over the Muslim ban? Not as far as I can tell. Many who have quit were upset with the prospect of Rex Tillerson at the helm, but who cares? They just surrendered much of the power they had to influence matters in the Trump Administration and Trump will find replacements who are more to his liking. What will those people do now after quitting the Trump Administration? Write books? Appear on talk shows? Get another job?

Harvard law professor and one time presidential candidate Larry Lessig has a great interview where he explains why Trump is good for democracy. I agree with him. Trump is ringing the bell for all of us. Maybe his presidency is a natural evolution of our country. Perhaps we've been far too complacent, or maybe just too busy to get engaged in politics. Trump forces our hand. Trump requires us to be present, vigilant and engaged.

If everyone went about their business as usual, I'd be worried. But they're not. They're taking time off work to protest, to let their voices be heard now, they're starting to show up.

Trump is an entertainer and as far as I can tell, he will always be an entertainer to me. He knows how to work the media into a frenzy. He knows how to bait anyone if he wants to. Maybe it's just me, but I think Trump is going to tar and feather the GOP before he leaves office. Here's why: many GOP members of Congress disagree with Trump and his ban on Muslims.

But that's not what we hear in the news. Most people will think that whatever Trump does is what the GOP wants, and all they can do is watch as Trump destroys their reputation. And this is just immigration. It's early days still, but I think that in four years, it won't matter who the GOP puts out there, just about anyone else would look better than Trump and his coattails in Congress.

Yes, it's good to see that people are getting involved in politics. Thank you so much, Mr. Trump.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

I'd rather prosecute this revolution peacefully, thank you

I eschew violence. The last time I got into fisticuffs was in high school. The problem with fighting as an adult is that I am big enough and strong enough to send someone to the hospital. Other people are also big enough to send me to the hospital. Plus, some adults pack heat and I don't want to invite any of that into my life. So I don't fight with people. I don't want to end up in the hospital and I don't want the face of someone in pain in my memory or on my conscience.

There is now open talk of revolution anywhere I care to look in social media. Protests are all over the country and although much of it is peaceful (as it should be), I still see that some people are advocating and committing violent protests. While I can understand why people might go to such lengths to effect change, we have to admit that for a long time, we've been asleep at the wheel only to find our car in the weeds.

As an example of one such advocate of violent protest, I want to direct your attention now to The Writing of John Laurits. I have nothing but admiration for this man's writing. He did a fantastic job of crunching the numbers during the primary campaign to show how Bernie Sanders could win. He is very much clued into the politics of America and understands the gravity of the situation we face now with a clear and overt oligarchy.

But, just the other day, he wrote something I cannot defend, "In defense of broken windows, property destroyed and limos set on fire". In his article, he makes it clear that somebody is telling us how to protest. Sure, there should be rules, something that says "this is off limits". But when people engage in war, they tend to forget that what they can do to others can be done to them. To his credit, he is advocating protests that just breaks things, and not to hurt people.

I'm not here to tell you how to protest. It is your right to protest. It is your right to speak your mind. I would never tell you how to do it, whatever it is you plan to do. Just remember that you have a conscience, no matter what you might think or what others might tell you. You may be protesting precisely because you do have a conscience. If you intend to break something during your protest, be aware of the sense of violation that someone else might feel as a result of your action. Know that you won't make any new friends with a path of destruction.

So before you set about your protest, you might consider, how did we get here? Look at us! We're working hard at 1, 2 or 3 jobs. We're raising kids, we're taking care of business as best as we can. We're very busy. Too busy to participate in government. If we're protesting it's probably too late, anyway. We were so busy just keeping our heads above water, that we forgot to get involved in politics. So now we think it's OK to break stuff to express our frustration?

There are consequences to everything that we do. If we break stuff, the business calls their insurance company. They fight with their insurance company to get the money needed to fix or replace their stuff. Actuaries run new risk calculations and costs go up for the business and everyone else in that neighborhood. Their prices go up. They really don't care about us because we don't care about them, so they're going raise prices on us and that's that. In the end, it's all about the money, honey.

I am only here to say that there is another way.

We are engaged in a class war. The wealthy have made war on the poor and they are winning, and they've been winning since at least 1980. This is a fight over money, time and things, and there is no love lost between the rich and the poor here. But there is a connection, however tenuous. I know a thing or two about Buddhism and particle physics and they both agree on one thing for sure. We are all connected.

In the Buddhist religion, they believe that everyone is connected. If I hurt you, I hurt me. They believe in something called Karma. What comes around goes around. If you do good, you receive good. If you do bad, oh well...

In particle physics, scientists have learned of something called entanglement. Entanglement has been observed when two new particles are created from one, going in opposite directions and when an effect is made on one of the particles, the opposite effect is made on the other particle. Scientists have found that they can act on one particle and both particles respond, simultaneously, regardless of the distance between them. The estimated speed of this interaction is something like 10,000 times the speed of light. Their best explanation for this observation is that everything is connected.

So, we can fight, but we might be hurting ourselves by fighting. I believe there is something else we can do to help ourselves and still resist the oligarchy. What I'm about to propose is a long game, but it can work. Yes, things are pretty bleak, and it looks like really urgent action is required. But there is another way to wage class war and it doesn't even have to get violent. We can focus on helping ourselves instead of hurting "them", whoever they might be.

I turn you now to this page, Getting Rich: from Zero to Hero in One Blog Post, by a man who calls himself, "Mr. Money Mustache" - great pun, did you see it? Yes, we're talking about money. But we're not talking about a lot of money, yet. I've been reading that blog and found that he's onto something. By cutting unnecessary expenses, that man got rich. He figured out how to save enough money on two ordinary incomes with his wife to retire at 30 and then have a family. By one of his estimates, he saved 66% of his gross income over 7 years enough to retire.

This is not about winning the lottery and this is not a lesson in asceticism. This just a practical guide to saving money to enjoy a decent life. I read that first page and I'm already doing just a few things that he talks about. I don't watch much TV (I've tried and even on Netflix my writing begins to wither). I don't have cable. I don't do Starbucks. I bag my lunch for work. We don't eat out much. I don't have unsecured debt. I have no student loans (I have a GED and some college). I have managed to parlay what I've saved into a house, made improvements on that house and traded up. I did it on one income, and my wife stays at home to mind the kids.

I don't make a ton of money, but what I did can happen for you. To us. And we can do what Mr. Money Mustache did, too. I strongly encourage you to read that blog post (but don't stop there, he has many more), and don't miss this little nugget:
The bottom line is this: by focusing on happiness itself, you can lead a much better life than those who focus on convenience, luxury, and following the lead of the financially illiterate herd that is the TV-ad-absorbing Middle Class of the United States (and other rich countries) today. Happiness comes from many sources, but none of these sources involve car or purse upgrades.
I kid you not, that is me. I've been focused more on happiness than money. I cringe at the thought of spending money on a shiny new TV or computer or some other do-dad. I'm a techie, so I admire those OLED TVs in Best Buy, but I know how I feel after I buy something, so I save for what I really want and stop there.

I've been thinking about this for a long, long time. On September 30th, 2008, I wrote this article, The Cash Society. Here is the nugget:
Imagine a parallel universe where you have a year of expenses saved up. Now you can kiss your boss goodbye (ew!) on good terms, and take your time finding the job you want. Or you can take a month off to reassess your direction in life. Whatever. You have a contingency fund to handle most small emergencies, too. With a year of expenses in the bank, the bank wants you to stick around. Like I said - it's a parallel universe.
What happened on September 30th, 2008? Every too-big-to-fail bank had stock that was worthless. That was the day that the financial community made a very public admission that they missed the housing bubble. Then the government helped the banks not the people. Cute.

Since I wrote that article, I've been thinking about how to get to that point, the point of having a year of expenses saved up. I've already made some good starts and will continue to find other ways to save money. It seems like such a small thing, but I believe that Mr. Money Mustache has laid out a framework for a peaceful financial revolution that most people can follow.

Imagine what could happen when a hundred million working Americans decide to stop going out to eat. To bag their lunch every day at work. To cut the cord to cable. To doff their cell phone subscriptions (I haven't done that yet, but I'm thinking about a way to do it). What happens to the very wealthy when 100 million working Americans find a way to save more than half of their income and still be happy and healthy? I don't know, but I would love to find out.

If 100 million working Americans saved up a year of expenses or more, we are far more likely to have the time to get involved in politics. We can show up at the meetings, the elections, the hearings and other government functions where decisions are made that can have an enormous impact on our lives - long before we need to protest any adverse decision. We can choose our jobs. When we change our behavior, the oppressors have no choice but to change theirs. And since we're just saving our money, we don't go to jail and we get $200 when we pass Go.

Inequality is just another form of voter suppression. Now there is something we can do about it. We can get conscious about how we spend our money, save it and deny the oppressors of that money and more importantly, at least some of their control over us, or we can protest. It really is up to us. We had the power the whole time. We just didn't know it.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

For all the protests of Trump, he's a walk in the park compared to Mike Pence

Robert Reich was Secretary of Labor under President Bill Clinton. He's using his stature for a good cause, to keep alive the American Middle Class and the diversity of people in it. I like much of what he has to say and have even seen a few of his videos. He was a staunch supporter of Bernie Sanders when he was running for president and I appreciate his efforts to stump for Sanders during the campaign. His stature as a former member of the Clinton Administration provides for him access to high ranking current and former elected officials that allows him to get news most of us might not otherwise get.

So it is without too much surprise that I read Reich's personal recounting of an exchange with an anonymous former Republican member of Congress suggesting that most Republicans despise Trump and that Mike Pence is who they really like. Here is the exchange that you can find in Reich's public post on Facebook:
I had breakfast recently with a friend who's a former Republican member of Congress. Here's what he said:
Him: Trump is no Republican. He’s just a big fat ego.
Me: Then why didn’t you speak out against him during the campaign?
Him: You kidding? I was surrounded by Trump voters. I’d have been shot.
Me: So what now? What are your former Republican colleagues going to do?
Him (smirking): They’ll play along for a while.
Me: A while?
Him: They’ll get as much as they want – tax cuts galore, deregulation, military buildup, slash all those poverty programs, and then get to work on Social Security and Medicare – and blame him. And he’s such a fool he’ll want to take credit for everything.
Me: And then what?
Him (laughing): They like Pence.
Me: What do you mean?
Him: Pence is their guy. They all think Trump is out of his mind.
Me: So what?
Him: So the moment Trump does something really dumb – steps over the line – violates the law in a big stupid clumsy way … and you know he will ...
Me: They impeach him?
Him: You bet. They pull the trigger.
I have no doubt of the veracity of his account and experience here. I note also that the story was picked up by the very conservative news outlet, The Daily Caller. You can find their account of it here.

Yes, Trump has his problems and some might even say he's awful. While there are plenty of people protesting and making noise about how awful Trump is, they might want to take note that Mike Pence is far, far worse. Pence is a religious zealot. He would like to fashion America as a Christian Nation. We know this because of the kinds of things he has done in his home state, Indiana and his long history in politics.

I wrote this article about Pence as governor almost two years ago. While researching it, I learned how Pence wanted to make it OK for business owners to discriminate against the LGBT community based on their religious beliefs. This is just a smattering of what Pence is like.

Pence is a hard line establishment Republican. Compared to "clumsy" Mr. Trump, Pence knows how Washington works and how politics in general works. If Trump is impeached, or is removed from office some other way, and that could include voluntary resignation, get ready for a rough ride. In an article by Jeremy Scahill at The Intercept, they have taken notice of the lack of coverage of Pence, acknowledged the true and present danger of Pence as President and even as Vice President, and emphasized the enthusiasm of the religious right with Pence in the White House:
Pence’s ascent to the second most powerful position in the U.S. government is a tremendous coup for the radical religious right. Pence — and his fellow Christian supremacist militants — would not have been able to win the White House on their own. For them, Donald Trump was a godsend. “This may not be our preferred candidate, but that doesn’t mean it may not be God’s candidate to do something that we don’t see,” said David Barton, a prominent Christian-right activist and president of Wall Builders, an organization dedicated to making the U.S. government enforce “biblical values.” In June, Barton prophesied: “We may look back in a few years and say, ‘Wow, [Trump] really did some things that none of us expected.’”
To put this in context, the new Congress is 91% Christian. The majority in both houses are Republicans. According to the chart presented in this article at the Huffington Post, there are only two Republicans in Congress who are not Christian, and they are Jewish. Those Christian Republicans probably won't lose any sleep if Trump is replaced by Mike Pence.

It is also worth noting in the final passage of Mr. Scahill's article, which reads like a dossier on Pence:
President Obama, Hillary Clinton, and a slew of prominent Democrats have publicly said that Americans should give Trump a chance. 
I'm inclined to agree. This is not a call to defend Trump. I'm simply raising awareness that Trump isn't even remotely close to being as difficult as Mike Pence could be. It's nice that Mr. Reich has alerted us to an impending Trump ouster. Better still is for Reich to put that news in context with Mr. Pence waiting in the wings.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Abandon the TPP? Renegotiate NAFTA? Trump is not the end of the world

In my social media circles I'm seeing links to stories about the new Trump Administration. Social media informs me that the Trump Administration took down information on climate change, LGBT issues and civil rights. In the news, we learn that most of what he did on the first day was ceremonial. He signed nomination documents and executive orders. His staff changed the White House website to be more in line with the ideology of his campaign, and maybe even his party.

Social media tells me how awful and dark a Trump Administration will be. I just don't believe the gloom and doom of Trump. I'm an optimist.

Here's an example of why I'm an optimist. A search for "trump tpp" reveals that Trump will formally withdraw the US from the Trans Pacific Partnership. He wants to renegotiate NAFTA and has already made it policy to pursue that goal. The Detroit Free Press reports:
But on Friday, shortly after Trump was sworn in, the administration pledged to negotiate "tough and fair" trade agreements with the goal of creating more U.S. jobs as one of its top policy issues posted on Whitehouse.gov.
"This strategy starts by withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and making certain that any new trade deals are in the interests of American workers," the statement says. "President Trump is committed to renegotiating NAFTA. If our partners refuse a renegotiation that gives American workers a fair deal, then the President will give notice of the United States’ intent to withdraw from NAFTA."
ABC News from Australia reports that:
A White House statement issued soon after Mr Trump's inauguration said the United States would also "crack down on those nations that violate trade agreements and harm American workers in the process".
The statement said Mr Trump was committed to renegotiating another trade deal, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which was signed in 1994 by the United States, Canada and Mexico.
Exiting from the TPP and fixing NAFTA are not exactly your garden variety conservative goals. They are progressive goals that Democrats have quietly ignored for decades. Anyone aware of the turn to the left with Jeremy Corbyn in the UK can see the same thing. During his campaign for president, Trump told us we can call him "Mr. Brexit". Now he is starting to prove it.

I note that of the many things he said and promised during the election, this issue, the free trade issue, is one that he has been very consistent on. I sincerely hope that he is true to his pledge on bad trade agreements.

As I've written before, the TPP is not a free trade agreement. The primary purpose of that agreement is is to strengthen and lengthen intellectual property rights. In a sense, it is designed to export our intellectual property laws to other countries, particularly with respect to China. If you want to make products abroad, but worry about having to deal with cheap knockoffs, then stronger intellectual property laws fit the bill. In that context, we can see that the TPP was designed to keep jobs in China while depriving Americans of those jobs.

This is fine if you're an oligarch living in America. This is not fine if you work in manufacturing and have no college degree. Could Trump be thinking about his wealthy benefactors? Sure. Did he nominate very wealthy people to positions of power in the federal government? He did. But his plans for exiting the TPP and renegotiating NAFTA seem to be tacit acknowledgment of the trade deficit (and the pain of American manufacturing workers). The only other candidate who made trade an issue central to his campaign was Bernie Sanders.

In at least one debate I've had in social media, I saw what might seem like an overarching goal for the TPP: for the United States to write the rules for the Asia Pacific region. Some have expressed concern that if we lose the TPP, we lose a chance to reign in China. Really?

China is more than a billion strong in population. They have a massive military, their economy is growing and they build many of the products that we use everyday: phones, computers and TVs. Considering our relations with China now, I doubt that one trade agreement is going to do much to control them. Even if it did, who will benefit from such control? The middle class? The TPP has been characterized as NAFTA on steroids, so I think we can make an educated guess as to who will benefit from it: the top 1%.

Why is the TPP seen as NAFTA on steroids? There are provisions in the TPP for ISDS, also known as investor state dispute settlement. TPP proponents claim that ISDS in the TPP was designed to provide additional safety for investors to protect against nationalization of their factories overseas. Economist Joe Stiglitz at the Roosevelt Institute offers some additional insight. He notes that the United States is insisting on ISDS for another trade agreement with Europe, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Stiglitz says that Europe already has strong legal safeguards as strong as the United States, so what gives? ISDS is for banana republics, not Europe. Stiglitz offers another possible motivation for ISDS, freedom from Congress:
While defenders of ISDS sometimes claim that it prevents discrimination against foreign firms, foreign firms have sued—and won—even when they are treated no differently from domestic firms. In fact, these provisions discriminate in favor of foreign firms: A foreign firm can sue the U.S. government in private arbitration for cash rewards if it thinks government actions violate the new rights and privileges granted by TPP, but domestic American firms have no such recourse in U.S. courts. Two arbitrators can, in effect, undermine decisions of Congress and the president, ordering billions of dollars in payments for their lost investment value and guesstimated lost profits.
Under TPP, foreign investors could sue over pretty much any law, regulation, or government decision. The agreement guarantees a “minimum standard of treatment,” a vague standard that corporate-friendly arbitrators have interpreted liberally in past decisions, inventing obligations for governments that do not exist in the actual text of agreements or host countries’ laws.
I can see it now. A major American corporation does an inversion and uses their foreign corporation to sue the United States over a law they don't like. Cute. The TPP may allow us to assert control over China, but it undermines our sovereignty as a nation. Doesn't that seem sort of expensive?

There were a few economists who noticed that over the last 30 years, the trade deficit led to stagnating wages and then to the collapse of the housing bubble. One economist who noticed is Dean Baker from the Center for Economic and Policy Research. How many economists with PhDs missed the housing bubble? As far as we know, every economist at the Federal Reserve missed the housing bubble, but if they did see it coming, they sure weren't talking about it. Even Paul Krugman at the New York Times missed it. 6 economists predicted the collapse of the housing bubble before it happened. Dean Baker was one of them and warned us about it.

Baker is also one of the few economists who understands that what matters is not the federal budget deficit. What matters is the trade deficit. The US trade deficit for 2015 was about $500 billion a year. We've had trade deficits for as long as I can remember, but according to this chart, our balance of trade was relatively flat until about 1976.

Notice also that the trade deficit really took off at the start of the Bush Administration. That would be around the time that NAFTA started to kick into gear. That is demand that is going to other countries and leaving ours. Is it any wonder we experienced a massive recession when so much demand leaves our country? Our massive trade deficits have persisted across 36 years of Republican and Democratic leadership. That means during all that time, it didn't matter which party was in power, they weren't thinking about the middle class.

Were Bush and Obama diametrically opposed? On some issues, sure. But given the way the trade deficit has persisted between them, they seem to be in agreement on trade. This is not a partisan issue. Both parties understand that the system is rigged and they won't change it unless they're called on it.

Companies like Dell, HP, Microsoft, Apple, Intel, and Walmart depend on the trade deficit for their profits. They depend on foreign labor to keep their margins high. Wall Street depends on trade policy to depress wages so that money is redistributed to the top, not the bottom. To make Wall Street's dreams come true, Americans saw their factories leave the country in droves. Americans missed many chances to make the products so familiar to us, like computers, phones and game consoles. America can make those products, but the people who write trade policy say they should not.

Intel was co-founded by Andy Grove, an industrialist from the 1960s. He knows what it takes to build a company that manufactures memory and processors for computers. He helped to create the wealthy and powerful company we know Intel to be today. But he saw what Silicon Valley was doing. They were designing new products and sending the jobs to make them overseas. He saw how that kind of business was a dead end. He also saw that when we move manufacturing overseas, we lose the know-how and the shop smarts to make things. In 2010, Andy Grove reminded us that innovation starts in the shop.

I used to be a sheet metal worker. I used to build and install the ducts that carry the air from the air conditioning system on the rooftops of commercial buildings to the offices where people work to keep them cool. I witnessed first hand, how people think about making things. We found shortcuts, better tools and better technology, for cutting, bending, and folding sheet metal. All of that is what Andy Grove refers to as know-how. When we send our manufacturing work overseas, we don't just lose the jobs, we lose the knowledge and experience required to build what we buy in the stores.

Now that I think about it, a manufacturer uses offshore labor to make a product and limit or eliminate domestic competition. If they locate their manufacturing plants in places where the government can provide slave labor, and they get an unbeatable process for manufacturing goods while limiting domestic competition.

If Trump is able to address the trade imbalance and correct it so that we have a balance of trade, we can bring jobs home. Every year, $500 billion in demand is being spent elsewhere as our trade deficit. That loss of demand is a drag on our economy. That means our economy has had to rely upon bubbles to keep it going. Most Americans lose money in bubbles. Where does that money go? To the people who have the experience to make money from bubbles: Wall Street. They are the people who want to keep things as they are, and they have the money to influence Congress and keep it that way. They gave us our bubble economy.

$500 billion in demand is equivalent to roughly 5 million jobs, and that is just the direct effect. No Republican or Democratic Administration has been willing to correct our trade deficits for at least 36 years. Bernie Sanders, an independent Senator from Vermont, understood the problem and campaigned on fixing it. Clinton understood the problem, but seemed loathe to fix it because she was beholden to the money that wanted to keep the trade deficit in place.

Conservatives are not willing to spend enough money to replace the demand lost through the trade deficit. They are not willing to raise taxes to get the money needed to generate that demand. As Robert Reich notes, Democrats are on life support, and they have not been brave enough to put forth a progressive policy that works. If Clinton would have won, she would have done what Bill Clinton did, "we'll take what we can get from the Republicans". That's what they called leadership in the 1990's. That is a big part of why we are here now.

Donald Trump ran on a promise to fix this problem. This is why he did so well in the Rust Belt. They want their jobs back and voted for him based on that promise. With Trump's announcements on the TPP and NAFTA, he seems intent to deliver on his promise.

While I see my fellow liberals and progressives gnashing their teeth and assigning blame in order to make sense of their losses in November, I see Trump as an opportunity to right the imbalance of trade to bring back the jobs that allowed America to prosper.

For the record, I am not a Trump supporter, or denier. I have an open mind and am waiting to see what will happen next. I just don't believe in the gloom and doom about Trump. I am an optimist, and I am looking for opportunities for progressive policies to succeed, even with Trump as president.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Denial is not a river, it is "Not My President", and we could do better

Inauguration day is tomorrow. Tomorrow we will have a new president and I care, but since I don't wield much power, I don't really care that much. What's done is done, so I'm thinking about my family, my day job, my life. I don't have any plans to watch the inauguration, but I know it will happen. At the same time, I see millions of people are chanting, writing, sharing, protesting, that Trump is “not my president” as if somehow they can click their heels three times and find themselves back in Kansas again. This is denial. 

Don't get me wrong. I'm not a Trump supporter, I'm a Trump observer. I see the clown car he's drawing from for his cabinet. All his nominees seem to want to dismantle the agencies they claim to want to run. Most seem intent on running the government like a business, like it's their own private monopoly. Will they sell more than just government services? Will they sell access?

Denying that Trump is president has about as much effect as denying that Bush was president, or that Obama was president just yesterday. Saying that Trump is not my president has nearly zero effect on the reality of what is before us now. Denial of Trump as president arises from resentment. Resentment is like drinking poison while waiting for the other person to die.

I have made a point of being respectful of Trump, regardless of how bad people make him out to be. He still lives in this country and he has said he wants to make America a better place to be. I believe that Trump, like most people, wants to know he did the right thing when he goes to bed at night. I will assume ignorance before malice with Trump as I do with everyone else. I assume that people would do better if they could, but for lack of skills to do better.

Whether or not I agree with Trump on how to run government is almost immaterial here. I have near zero influence on Trump. To quantify that influence in scientific terms, I probably have 10 or maybe 20 ergs of influence on Trump. An erg is a tiny unit of measured force. I use this concept to lend some perspective, because although my influence on Trump is small, collectively, our influence can be large, if we choose to unite against the policies that he wishes to implement, should we disagree with them. I hold out hope that he might do something I can find agreement with.

Notice that I said that we should unite against the policies he wishes to implement if we find that we disagree with them, not Trump the person. I happen to like his ideas on NAFTA and other bad trade deals. So to me, uniting against Trump doesn't make sense. He has the power and the office. Why make him an adversary? Trump likes to make deals. So let's see if we can deal with him. We get to choose if we want him to be an adversary or not.

I once saw a poll that said that 25% of federal workers would quit if Trump became president. If only economic mobility were so good. I can hear how their next interview for their next job would go:

"So, why did you quit your last job?"


They better hope that their next employer and interviewer is not a Trump supporter.

I hope that zero federal employees quit when Trump becomes president. If you truly believe you are doing good service for the country as a public employee, quitting your job over Trump is the worst thing you can do. Once removed, you have also relinquished your influence. If you're going to leave, let yourself be fired while doing the best job you can do, and wear that as a badge of honor. 

If federal employees who oppose Trump stay, they can actually do something that most of us cannot. They can have visible and measurable influence on Trump. I will never forget what I once heard about William E. Simon, former Secretary of the Treasury under Jimmy Carter. He wanted to change things at the Treasury. He wanted to make it run better than it was being handled. But he had to fight people with decades of bureaucratic experience. He had to fight people who knew how to slow things down. He had to fight people who knew how to file the right paperwork to screw everything up so, so completely.

I say that for better or worse, Trump is my president. This isn't to say that I support him. It is to say that I acknowledge the reality of Trump as president and that I'm willing to work with it. Denying reality requires enormous sums of energy. Denying reality takes energy away from what we could do and applies it to what we choose not to do.

This is not the time for denial. If you're a Clinton Democrat, get off the pity-potty and and stop criticizing Bernie Sanders. Don't believe the lies about Sanders. Watch the confirmation hearings and see how Sanders is fighting for you. Do you ever hear him saying that Trump is not his president? I don't. 

I watched the exchange of Sanders and Betsy DeVos, Trump's nominee for Secretary of Education. Sanders is doing what I would expect of any man who keeps his job in government. Sanders did not quit his job because Trump is going to be president. He kept his job so that he could keep the issues important to us in the bright lights. He wants to show us how appointment nominees may be subject to the influence of money in politics. He is pointing out that those in appointed office could start a sideline: selling access. Sanders knows that by keeping his job, he retains influence.

We have no control over how this is going to go. The best we can ever hope for is to have influence over the decisions that government makes. Denying the reality of Trump as president makes no use of that influence. Denying Trump is our president denies that we have any influence over him at all.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

If you doubt we need universal healthcare, let's talk about industrial pollution

Unless you've been hiding under a rock for the last few days, it's rather hard to miss the GOP's unrelenting efforts to repeal Obamacare, also known as, The Affordable Care Act (ACA). I've been perusing the news stories and see that people are holding rallies and sharing stories, daring the Republicans to listen to the stories and continue on their quest to repeal. All they need to do is look at the demographics to see that the vast majority of their constituents will lose coverage with repeal of Obamacare.

Trump isn't making matters any better for the GOP. He's insisting on fast and sure repeal of Obamacare with an immediate replacement that is just so, so good. According to Naked Capitalism, there is no replacement plan, well, at least there isn't a plan out there that meets Trump's requirements. It would seem, based on my reading so far, that Trump will not sign legislation to repeal Obamacare without a clear and present replacement that he likes. Yet, Republicans in Congress seem intent on sailing off the edge of the world and into the abyss.

Bernie Sanders ran for president on the campaign promise of Medicare For All. That is, expanding the program to anyone who wants it as a public option, with no restrictions. Opponents of his plan saw it as a clear challenge to the status quo, they saw it as the road to the single payer plan they believe has failed so miserably in places like the UK. Failed? I don't know. I remember the opening ceremony to the Summer Olympics a few years ago. During the opening ceremonies, they put on a giant show devoted to their beloved health care system, a single payer system, complete with choreographed hospital beds.

While Republicans would have us believe that a free market would serve all far better than any government plan, they seem to omit the salient point that their campaign finance friends have money and they want more of it. Democrats on the other hand, in their quest to keep the ACA intact, with some like Sanders seeking Medicare For All, are missing the point. Half measures avail us nothing. There is a case to be made for universal healthcare for everyone as a right.

Republicans (and neoliberal Democrats) seem loathe to discuss a few yawning holes in their arguments. First, they don't like to talk about the fact that there is an acute shortage of doctors and how that shortage drives up the cost of healthcare. They omit the fact that doctors who want to practice medicine here must complete a residency program here and that the availability of those programs is limited by law, by Congress. Fewer still want to discuss the very real option of opening up the floodgates to doctors worldwide by adopting an international standard for the practice of medicine, yet they are unabashed fans of globalization.

We have the internet, a network based on multiple international standards. We have cars that run based on widely adopted standards including fuel, parts and design. Cars have thousands of pieces that must work together and must comply with multiple standards and regulations across many jurisdictions - they're complex - so don't tell me the practice of medicine is more complex. 

There is no reason that doctors from other countries, willing to work for a fraction of the pay that our own medical divas receive, can't work here short of the political will to make it happen. Don't forget, doctors were perfectly willing to thrust American manufacturing workers into competition with third world countries while seeking and getting protection for their own incomes. They have the money to influence public policy. Manufacturing workers don't.

Republicans, acting as so-called conservatives, will jump headlong into debates about how free markets work so well while mercilessly refusing to discuss patents and their incipient transaction costs for drugs. Republicans and neoliberal Democrats alike seem perfectly happy with lousy trade deals like NAFTA and TRIPS,  both of which help to spike drug prices and protect doctors. Republicans and now some Democrats-in-name-only would prefer that we not permit programs like Medicare to negotiate drug prices. A free market means that all parties are free to negotiate. This prohibition doesn't sound like the free market at work. Those same people who don't want Medicare to negotiate drug prices also do not want to allow the re-importation of drugs at lower prices from other countries.

How many members of Congress have openly discussed the idea of paying for drug research up front instead of rewarding the researchers with patents? 0. We do this with neglected diseases and we do it with far greater efficiency than their beloved patent system. That could be a result of that wonderful spigot of campaign finance cash from the pharmaceutical industry. See? Money really does cloud judgment.

These are known issues and often turn up if you look for them. But there is one massive white elephant that no one in elected office seems to want to discuss when it comes to the topic of healthcare: industrial pollution. America has a well known history of pollution. Oil, coal and gas industries are the usual suspects. Not a week goes by without some sort of oil spill, coal ash spill or a gas leak that takes weeks if not months to cap off and fix. These examples should all make the case for universal healthcare, but there is one really big pollution story that I've never seen discussed in political debate: DuPont's C8, the sciency name is "perfluorooctanoic acid", and related chemicals. C8 is the chemical that gives non-stick coating its properties in cookware. Most of it is burned off during production, but some tiny fraction remains.

I spent an hour reading an article, which describes the sorry tale of a small town in West Virginia. That town is virtually owned by DuPont. There was a time when if you criticized DuPont in that town, your neighbors wouldn't talk to you anymore and they'd skip birthday parties for your kids. If you showed up in a restaurant, everyone would stop what they were doing and leave.

Welcome to Beautiful Parkersburg, West Virginia, is that story. It's a story about how cows got so sick from the chemical waste from DuPont that they bled to death through their mouths. It's a story about a company that lied through deceit and omission about just how toxic their C8 chemical was. It's a story about a company that took decades to even admit there was a problem and when brought to task in the courts, fought tooth and nail to escape liability and still works hard to flee, while raking billions in revenue.

Here are a few very interesting tidbits from that article to lend some context. Here's an account of a cow bleeding to death:
“One time this cow was coming down the road and it was just bellowing, the awfulest bellow you ever heard,” Della told me. “And every time it would bellow, blood would gush from its mouth and its nose. It just bellowed and bellowed and blood just kept flying, and then it would fall down, and it would try to get up … We didn’t have anything to shoot it with, so we just had to watch it until finally the cow bled to death.”
DuPont is the company that brought us to the Age of Plastic:
The rapid proliferation of plastics gave ordinary people access to conveniences and goods that had once been beyond their reach. It also brought tens of thousands of unregulated chemicals into American homes. In the early 1950s, a group of Columbia University scientists published several papers describing high rates of cancer in rats exposed to plastics such as vinyl, Saran wrap and Teflon. Some lawmakers began to worry about the lack of safety testing for chemicals in the food supply. (emphasis mine)
But because of the powerful influence DuPont had on Congress, not enough was done to investigate and regulate new chemicals released with new plastic products. "Tens of thousands of unregulated chemicals"? Who knew? What follows is decades of publication bias in the literature to protect the business and keep the general public in the dark about these new chemicals.

Legislation passed to regulate these industries allowed tens of thousands of chemicals to be "grandfathered in" as "safe", yet with one chemical alone, C8, babies were born with birth defects and numerous other diseases popped up. Here is a sample of symptoms of C8 exposure from the oldest surviving C8 tester:
Among the plaintiffs is Kenton Wamsley, the DuPont lab worker who was assigned to test C8 in the early 1980s. His complaint cites two C8-linked conditions: high cholesterol and ulcerative colitis. However, these diagnoses don’t begin to describe the extent of his suffering.
The crippling stomach cramps and anal bleeding that plagued him during his early days as a tester eventually grew so bad that he had to undergo surgery to remove intestinal blockages, a common complication of ulcerative colitis. After that, his stomach problems eased, but he developed severe asthma and was unable to work for long stretches of time. Other C8 testers also started falling ill: Wamsley recalls one coworker bleeding heavily from his tongue in the lab. By 2001, Wamsley's stomach cramps and rectal bleeding had returned, and he was diagnosed with intestinal cancer.
It's important to remember that this is just one company and just one chemical compound found in their products. C8 can now be found in small amounts all over the world. Who will pay for this? Who will clean it up?

From this perspective, universal healthcare makes total sense. Look how hard it is to make one company pay up for a small population of victims, let alone everyone who has been touched by C8 and the environmental damage done by it. Now multiply this by hundreds or thousands of companies, all with go for the jugular litigation lawyers who are willing to kill as many trees as it will take to win. Want to see what it means to stall in discovery in a hotly contested lawsuit? You'll find it here in litigation over pollution.

So what is the solution? Well, the solution is to encourage companies that pursue such enterprises to take responsibility for their work and the damage that is done. It is to encourage them to keep the environment safe and clean. But if they're willing to hide when the market is not free, God only knows what they will do if the market really were free. On the healthcare side, universal healthcare seems to be the best solution. Here is why.

It is already a given that a corporation that pollutes the environment will do everything in their power to externalize their costs of production. That means if there is a pollution issue, they will seek to externalize those costs or hide them. DuPont is a great example of how companies do that. When a manufacturer externalizes the pollution costs of their products, that also means those costs are not built into the products we buy in the stores. The costs of cleanup and healthcare are usually paid by the taxpayer. Wealthy corporations have a team of lawyers who know tax law and can use tax havens. Most ordinary people do not.

It is also worth noting again that wealthy elites and organized business interests have a far greater influence on Congress than ordinary people do. This has been amply demonstrated by this study, Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens. In that study, polling was reviewed on more than 1700 political issues over 20 years and it was found that better than 60% of the time Congress voted against the polls. Yet, somehow, Congress now has a 96% re-election rate despite an 11% approval rating.

I really don't know how much universal healthcare would cost for America. Our taxes are pretty low now as it is and a large contingent pay zero federal taxes, with one estimate placing that contingent at 45% of Americans with income. But we're going to have to start somewhere because what we are doing now is unsustainable.

The point of taxation for universal healthcare is to ensure that the costs cannot be externalized and to ensure that everyone bears the costs of the pollution created by the products we make and buy. Note that much of what we import has pollution costs, too. The externalization of this pollution cost by setting up manufacturing overseas must be a highly attractive feature of offshore manufacturing.

No one that I've seen in the healthcare debate has discussed the need for universal healthcare in this context. No one has connected industrial pollution, which affects everyone without exception, and universal healthcare. Not Jill Stein or Bernie Sanders or even Hillary Clinton, once a staunch proponent of a single payer plan. The rest of the field is probably too timid to discuss it at all. Not like this.

I can't think of a better argument for universal healthcare. If American companies insist on making toxic products and lying about it, hiding it, or even moving it offshore (believe me, it comes back to us), then we need something that provides a catch-all solution, with no exceptions. In that context, a universal healthcare system with a tax that American industry cannot escape doesn't just make sense. Universal healthcare is now an urgent necessity. 

Sunday, January 15, 2017

$5 billion worth of free media coverage will get you the White House

A few days ago, I learned something astonishing. Someone crunched some numbers and found that by March 2016, Trump had received $2 billion in free air time on TV. Well, according to this article, he "earned" it. The latest estimate I can find shows that Trump "earned" a total of $5 billion in free media by November, (twice as much as Hillary Clinton). Trump is a master at working with media and that explains why he piled up so much coverage. As a master media manipulator, he fits the definition of entertainer. Yes, he may be president in a few days, but he'll always be an entertainer to me. 

Let's not forget how the dummies at the DNC encouraged their allies in the mainstream media to cover Trump above all others on the Republican primaries. I think it's fair to say that their plan backfired.

So how did Trump thank the media for all that coverage, gratis? "You're fake news! Next question!" Translation: "Your fired!" That was a few days ago at his first press conference since the election, and you can catch it in this video:

Here we see Trump calling out a reporter from CNN as "fake news". I could hardly believe what I was seeing. The kicker is this: they will come back for more because that drives ratings through the roof. Anyone who saw that clip will be looking for more coverage of Trump and watching him dispatch anyone who he thinks is in the business of selling fake news. I can't help but recall how CNN chose to train a camera on a vacant podium at a Trump rally instead of showing us a Sanders rally, live.

This is a story about how the mainstream media tried to choose our president for us. I think someone at the top truly believed that voters would come to their senses and vote for Clinton while they were making money on Trump. Look at all the decisions they made up to the point of seeing the outcome of the election and we can see that they knew that they were not making the right choices for the country. They were in the business of making money and while they were doing that, they just forgot the part about serving the country and informing us of all of the candidates. They did not give equal time.

From the Hollywood Reporter, we learn that the CEO of CBS Leslie Moonves has very nice things to say about Trump like, "It may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS", and "I've never seen anything like this, and this going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It's a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going," And here is the money shot"Man, who would have expected the ride we're all having right now? ... The money's rolling in and this is fun." Who signs his checks?

90% of the media is own by 6 parent corporations. I'd say it's the CEO of one of those parent companies that signs Mr. Moonves' checks. CBS is not the only one. All of the major networks played this game for fun and profit. Clearly, the money clouded their judgment and we got Trumped. Ha ha. For the record, I'm not a Trump or Clinton supporter, I wanted Bernie Sanders and he got the least amount of coverage between the three of them.

I've lived for years without cable, without TV on a schedule. That broke the habit for me. I just don't watch live TV except for the weather report. I have lived with days at the park, bike rides around town, walks to the store to get something to eat and I'd like to keep it that way. Now I have a family and I spend time with them. There is just something that gnaws at me, reminding me that the TV doesn't love me, that the TV is a distraction to the life buzzing around me. I still watch some, but mostly on my own schedule, my own terms with no commercials. 

For me, the spell is broken, but I observe the people who still watch TV the old way, even with a DVR. I see how they vote and how they choose their products. My rule is this: if I see something advertised on TV, I make the immediate assumption that I don't need it. This holds to true to most political ads, too. I think what really got to me was a book I read when I was a kid: Subliminal Seduction. It seemed such a curiosity in the bookshelf and since then, I have known that there are hidden messages in adverts, so I avoid them. I don't like that kind of influence on my brain.

That power to advertise below the conscious level is dangerous. That is the power of the media. They seem to have created a Skinner Box to condition voters in such a way as to ensure that their favored candidates win. The Skinner Box is about insecurity and how to get relief from it.

If millions of working class people suffer from job insecurity, then the people with some of the best jobs probably feel the most insecure, not for lack of food or shelter, but for the lifestyle and the status they hold now. The business owners at the top are fine because they're signing the checks and have the option not to. But the people working for them are worried about the money, not the choices they should be making as journalists or editors. Inequality doesn't just affect our economy, it affects our media and the choices they make. If the goal is to drive up ratings irrespective of the message, what is the point of journalism?

Trump didn't have to win the money primary. He won the media primary and then went on to win the election through the media. According to this article, by October of last year, Trump's campaign raised $512 million compared to $1.1 billion for Hillary Clinton. And Clinton still managed to lose the election. She lost largely due to her incompetence as a candidate as her campaign funding was more than adequate. But there is no dispute that Trump owes much of his victory to overwhelming support from mainstream media, to the tune of $5 billion in free coverage.

The lesson here is that money can and does cloud our judgment. This election is just the tip of the iceberg as to how money clouds our judgment. The polar ice caps are melting. We live in an economy mostly driven by the use of oil, coal and gas as energy sources. Our oceans are filling up with plastic. Plastic comes from oil, yet another use for fossil fuels, yet another source of money. And we are continually mired in war over that oil. Those are just a few examples, but I think you get the idea. When it comes to money, humans have a hard time maintaining empathy for others and the environment. I'm not saying we can't, I just saying its difficult.

We could talk about the Fairness Doctrine and the Equal Time rule, both from the FCC. But ultimately, it comes down to us to check our sources and to make conscious decisions about what we choose to believe in the media. Then its up to us to make informed decisions based on that information. The moment we make a conscious decision to decide for ourselves how to vote, the spell is broken.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

The personal and political implications of criticism

I don't criticize the people in my life. I just don't. I've tried it and it never works. I don't get the response I hope for, and I always felt awful after I criticize someone. So I just focus on keeping my side of the street clean. I only offer suggestions or advice when asked and even when asked, I make no criticism, I just offer positive guidance and problem solving assistance. I understand that when people make mistakes, they often realize what they did long before I can say something about it. I have seen people beat themselves up for their own mistakes, sometimes for days, as their own worst critic. So I remain focused on being the best human I can possibly be.

This article continues a theme I started a few months ago, and that theme is that people would do better if they could. I did a search on my own blog and found the first instance of where started on this trail here, in July of 2015. I have found that there are personal and political implications to this theme and I'd like to explore them with you here.

Years ago, when I was a lost and isolated soul, almost completely bereft of any understanding of people, a kind person directed me to a book. Books are like software and we read books to change the way we think. This book changed me forever: "Getting the Love You Want", by Harville Hendrix.

In that book, I read of a story of an older couple, married for 35 years. They had come to see Mr. Hendrix for marriage counseling. Sitting on the couch together, both were bickering, needling each other, insulting each other and generally carrying on. They said that they had been doing this for 35 years and wanted to stop.

So Hendrix gave them a pen and paper and told them to write a list of ten things they want the other person to do for them without being asked to do it. They spent a few minutes quietly writing their lists. "Now give your list to the other person," he said. They exchanged lists. To paraphrase from memory, "Now go home and plan on doing one of those things for each other every day. You must do one of those things for the other person without prompting by the other person. Just do it and let me know how it goes."

Harville further explains in his book that in the succeeding weeks and months, the couple were transformed into a more peaceful couple. By doing that one thing for the other person everyday, they changed the way they were seeing each other, not with their eyes, but with their hearts. In more or less scientific terms, they modified the response of the part of the brain known as the R-Complex, specifically, the medulla oblongata. Where before that part of the brain was associating the other person with pain, the couple changed the response of the medulla by doing something nice for each other.

Now this didn't solve all their problems, but with a simple thing like that, their lives were transformed for the better. No longer were they caught in the fight or flight response, because once they took the initial stimulus of pain away and replaced it with something nice, they built new neural pathways of association.

Criticism doesn't teach any lessons, it only teaches pain. That is why I don't criticize the people in my life. I strenuously avoid criticizing people in social media as well. I believe that the pain/pleasure response operates subconsciously and that people avoid me if I criticize them in life and in social media. So when I see their posts, I don't rain on their parade. If they post something I disagree with, I move on and make note of it, but I don't drop bombs on their posts. Especially if I know them in real life, like on Facebook. Live and let live, right?

If there is a debate in the comments, I'll partake and offer differing points of view to engage, but mostly, I just read and observe. I keep it civil, too. I don't call people stupid, nuts or what have you. I just try to offer the best evidence I can and state my opinion, mindful of the medulla.

I try to extend this to politics, too. It's very, very difficult to do. Politics is the art of living in a large group of people, each with varying needs. So I try to keep my criticism reserved to politicians. You have to have thick skin to be a politician, so I think they're fair game. But when I have something to say about them, I keep it political not personal. I don't give a damn what they do in private. What I care about is how they represent my voice in government.

I know for myself, that when people criticize me, I have programmed myself not to take it personally and to interpret that as feedback. If I do have any feelings about it, I let the feelings pass and then think about how I want to respond, if at all. I am not perfect, but I've practiced this for a long, long time and it has paid off in peace of mind.

I have hurt myself too many times before to allow myself anymore to act in anger as an older, wiser man. I am empathetic enough to not hurt other people with my words. In civil discourse, and in my blog, I avoid the personal and keep the discussion political. In debates in social media, I do my best to avoid criticizing the other person and focus instead on rebuttals with facts and documentation.

I am mindful that if I act with the intention to hurt someone's feelings, their medulla oblongata is going to respond, sometimes in ways I am not interested in learning about. I try to offer solutions rather than criticism. I try to offer alternatives as suggestions for changing the way things are.

I see the insults hurled at Donald Trump and I am sure that he has thick skin. I am fairly certain that he's in character most of the time for he's an entertainer. I don't see him or anyone else as evil. To me, there is no evil, for the concept of evil is just a supernatural explanation of challenging behavior in adults and perhaps a few kids. There is only confused (what we call "evil") and less confused (what we call "good").

Hurling insults at Donald Trump (or anyone else for that matter) does nothing to help your cause. Depicting Trump as a baby, an idiot, a dunce, or what have you, is a waste of time. Yes, those are criticisms, actually insults, but they are personal insults. Donald Trump is now a politician and he knows how to handle personal insults and criticisms. Anyone who remembers the "small hands" fiasco in the primary debates should know better.

To criticize is to stay in the problem. To notice a shortcoming and to offer a solution or alternative behavior, with empathy, well, we might get somewhere with that.

I notice also that even Bernie Sanders is critical of Trump. But his criticism is not personal, it's political. It doesn't matter to him how smart or dumb Trump may be. What seems to matter to Sanders is whether or not Trump will honor his promises and whether or not Trump will help or hinder the middle class. He really does try to stay on point. I still love Bernie Sanders and wish he were president, but I accept the reality of what we have now and work with it.

As for my political debates in Google+ and on Facebook, with the former being a lot more interesting, I try to always err on the side of peace. I avoid making it personal with anyone and keep it on topic, on point, and keep it political. I will continue to err on the side of peace, to try to set an example of what I think civil discourse looks like. I don't tell other people what to do. I just speak my mind with respect to their medulla.

I practice this art of getting along with everyone I come into contact with. I see this continuum for degrees of engagement and trust, from the political to the social to the deeply personal. I am mindful of the Butterfly Effect, where simple actions that I take now can have much larger effects in the future.

With each passing day I practice this art, the art of living in peace, with hundreds of small actions and decisions. Every action and every decision is focused on the single goal, the prime directive: to err on the side of peace. When I err on the side of peace, I work to maintain the peace in my life. And yours.

Monday, January 09, 2017

Government isn't the problem - people are the problem - let's solve our problems together

I've been debating in Google+ again. The worry over Trump as president increases with each passing day as inauguration looms closer. I'm not worried myself, because we have a government that is built with checks and balances. I don't believe the gloom and doom about Trump. Already, I see the debaters in Google+ scoring points against each other and I see the posturing. I've also noticed some anarchists coming out in the debates I've participated in. Some are gun rights activists. I know this because I can check their profile to see what they're promoting with their Google+ accounts.

"Guns don't kill people, people do." This is the mantra of most gun rights activists, and they're right. That doesn't mean we should not regulate the sale and use of guns. That slogan simply makes the observation that guns are inanimate objects and do their damage in human hands.

I have a song playing in my head and I can't get it to go away. It's called "Heartache Tonight", by The Eagles. They are the ultimate band for the bar scene because that's what they sing about. I see the bar scene as being analogous to the playground and high school. That song "knows" that someone will get hurt tonight and assumes that no one can do anything about it. The Eagles were a big part of American pop culture for my generation and they provide some of the inspiration for this article.

I'm also reminded of this very interesting quote from a former member of the Nixon Administration:
“You want to know what this was really all about,” Ehrlichman, who died in 1999, said, referring to Nixon’s declaration of war on drugs. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying. We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
That was from John Ehrlicman, counsel and Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs under President Richard Nixon. It is a rather startling admission of the need of those in power to score points against those not in power. The attitudes expressed by the drug war clearly show the need to silence the opposition, the dissent, so that other wars may proceed without challenge. It is all about scoring points against the other side.

More recently, I'm now seeing worry about efforts by the GOP to defund Planned Parenthood. There are some who would have us believe that efforts to defund Planned Parenthood are about defunding abortions performed by the agency, but I've seen very well documented proof that no federal money is used to pay for abortion services at Planned Parenthood. Defunding Planned Parenthood means removing funding for a wide range of services that women need to check on and maintain their health. Again, I see one party with power scoring points against someone with less power.

Maybe it's just me, but lately, politics has become a sport to some and for them, it's all about scoring points. I disagree. Politics is not a sport for me. Politics about how we can all get along together. In peace.

As we close the book on the Obama Administration, I see that people are worried about Obamacare. There are serious concerns that millions will be booted from their health care plans, their insurance, and a portable system that works regardless of jobs or employers. Millions of Americans found that they are no longer tied down to one employer just for health insurance, always a dismissal away from being uninsured. Millions of Americans found that they could work part time and still have health insurance and made a choice to work part time.

With the election of Donald Trump, we see Republicans, with their majorities in Congress, ready and willing to repeal Obamacare. Yet, few if any can point to a practical and realistic replacement for Obamacare offered by Republicans. It is even a fair question to ask if Republicans did whatever they could to hobble Obamacare with amendments to the legislation that were tacked on in committee or during reconciliation proceedings as the legislation went from House to Senate and back. Their goal, it seems, is to make sure that no government healthcare program could ever work.

A fair number of conservatives that I've encountered in social media debates on the subject would have us believe that private enterprise has clean hands. Yet I can recall upon the passage of Obamacare how private insurance companies jacked up rates, leaving the marketplaces set up for Obamacare and generally, acting like sore losers in the debate, doing everything they could to make Obamacare bitter for the beneficiaries.

More than a few conservatives in debate and in the op-ed pages worried that Obamacare paved the way towards a single payer system. They worry about a government monopoly on healthcare. What they fail to acknowledge is that in many cases wherever government monopolies are compared to private monopolies, government monopolies tend to be more efficient. 

We have a natural experiment to consider with public vs private monopolies: internet access. In millions of homes across the country, most people have one or two broadband providers, and they are mostly private service providers. This is not a sign of thriving competition. These private monopolies are often unresponsive to the needs of the communities they claim to serve. They use a portion of their profits to lobby for greater protection of their business interests. Protection? From what? Municipal broadband.

In places like Colorado, Tennessee and even Utah, incumbent providers faced with real competition from "the public option" have spent millions lobbying statehouses to protect their monopolies. In Chattanooga, Tennessee, they have the very popular EPB, the Electric Power Board, now offering 1Gbps up and down service for $70 a month. Neighboring counties clamored for EPB service but are now denied service due to state legislation that prevents the EPB from servicing customers outside of their original service area. Incumbent providers like Comcast, Time-Warner and ATT all lobbied hard against the EPB, claiming unfair competition. This is what I mean when private enterprise claims the need for protection against "the public option". This is what opponents of Obamacare are afraid of - that the public option might actually work.

In Colorado, communities fed up with the private monopolies of Centurylink, Comcast and ATT decided to build their own broadband services run by the local municipalities. The incumbent providers prevailed again with a state law that says that communities may not provide public internet service without passing a series of hoops intended to hobble adoption of municipal broadband, again claiming unfair competition from a public utility. The law had an out, the referendum.

To date, 95 governments in Colorado have passed referendums seeking local control over their internet access to escape the grasp of the private monopolies running the show in their towns. Often, these referendums passed with better than 80% of the vote, sometimes breaching 90%.

Colorado is not exactly a hotbed of liberal passion, either. They are a mostly Republican state and have found the low hanging fruit of change is at the local level. Colorado passed legislation making cannabis legal for recreational use. They are flirting with the idea of a public option in healthcare, too.

Long ago, I read of an insurance executive who was paid $80 million for one year of service. He was one of the highest paid executives in the United States. His company had a PR department that worked hard to justify this outrageous CEO compensation. The wealthy, when they find the power that comes with their wealth, seem to have a hard time knowing when to stop. How do they know enough is enough? They too, are scoring points.

I'm reminded again of the soup bowl study. They tested college students in two settings. In one room, the control group, the test subject was presented with a bowl of soup and something to read, like magazines. Students were asked to eat until they were full or until the soup was gone. Most ate until the bowl was empty. They stopped when they could see the bottom of the bowl.

In another room, they were presented with the same thing, but this time, there was a hose connected to the bottom of the bowl that would create a bottomless bowl of soup. Students with the bottomless bowl would not stop even after they were full because they were looking for the bottom of the bowl. Instead listening to their bodies, they were looking for external clues and references to determine if they had enough to eat.

Wealthy people do that. After making their first billion, do they have enough? I see hedge fund managers who make more money in a day than many people do in a lifetime. Oil company executives continue to work long after they have more money than they could ever hope to spend. Long after our environment has been polluted and denatured. The wealthy can use their money to influence politics, for better or worse. I see them just scoring points, too. They seem dependent on external cues for happiness.

Life is more than just scoring points: getting an A, getting rich, making the other side feel pain. Yet there are some people who want government to work that way. Legislative jockeying and political posturing is about scoring points and making the other side feel pain. We saw that with the government shutdown a few years ago. We saw that with the DNC and their deliberate plans to make Hillary the nominee. We're seeing it again now that Republicans have majorities in Congress and the White House. They're all about scoring points and making the other side lose or feel pain.

Government is not the problem. People are. The Washington Post has an interesting article about two socialist countries. One on the brink of economic and social collapse, the other experiencing economic growth and blossoming culture. Conservatives would score a point by telling us that Venezuela is getting what they deserve while omitting how well Bolivia is doing. Both countries made different decisions about how to allocate resources. Both countries have problems, just like ours, both countries have governments that are run by people and those people determined the outcomes.

People have frailties. They have faults. They are not perfect. When governments fail, it's not because of the system, it's because of the people. When governments are run by people who treat others with respect and empathy, it doesn't matter which system they're in, the people will be better off. In every case where there is tyranny, there are abusive people in abusive cultures raised by abusive parents. Hitler's Germany was an authoritarian culture seeking world domination. The system of government didn't make Germany that way, the people did. Scandinavian countries shun confrontation with their kids, they shun judgement of their kids and they actively work with their kids to solve the problems of life with them.

It doesn't matter if the service provider in any economy is public or private. If the people providing the service are abusive, we can expect abuses. It doesn't matter if the system of government is libertarian or totalitarian, if the people are abusive, we can expect abuses. It doesn't matter if the economy is socialist, communist or capitalist, if the people are abusive, we can expect abuses.

People who are abusive believe in reward and punishment. They believe in scoring points and making the other side suffer for their weaknesses. Abusive people have a really hard time finding or creating internal motivation to succeed, to do the right thing, to have empathy for others. Abusive people rely upon external cues for happiness. This is not to say that abusive people are bad. This is to say that abusive people lack the skills they need to get along with others and play nice.

We find abusive people in a continuum, from the violent to the merely passive aggressive. We find them in a cult of personality. We find them in identity politics where we are made to focus on the person rather than the policies. Abusive people in politics exhibit little interest in teaching skills and more interest in making people pay the price for their lack of skills.

So how do we break the cycle? How do we make the world a better place? Bernie Sanders said real change starts at the bottom. Although I don't think this is what he had in mind, I believe that real change starts with our kids. How we raise our kids determines their outcomes. We've tried teaching them how to score points, but in the end, they will not find happiness in a gold star or winning at the game of life. Scoring points means that someone else loses.

Achievement cannot fill empty arms. So we could teach them collaborative and proactive solutions. When we see challenging behavior in kids, we could look at the behavior as a signal rather than the problem. Then we work with the kids to solve the problem that gives rise to challenging behavior. In so doing, we teach kids how to meet their own needs without making someone else lose. We teach them to be internally motivated to solve problems independent of how other people act.

Where could we learn about this? We could start with a book by Ross W. Greene, PhD., "Raising Human Beings". In fact, this isn't just for kids, this is for adults, too. The principles described in this book (and a few others by the same guy), are not just techniques for getting along. They are a way of life.

Dr. Greene is not the only one on this trail. There are many others on the same trail. They too, have learned that reward and punishment don't work. Happiness is not about scoring points or getting the best of someone else or making them lose. Maybe the human race is starting to learn that happiness is knowing that we have the skills to solve problems with durable, repeatable solutions.

Isn't that what government is supposed to be for?